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Mashpee Wampanoag or Wopanaak Tribe- People of the First Light

Contact between Native and non-Native people is often seen as a singular event at a particular point in time. Contact is in fact and ever occurring experience between those surviving indigenous peoples in a place and those who continue to arrive and settle within and around indigenous communities. The following is a snapshot timeline of the contact experience of the Mashpee Wampanoag.


Contact Timeline for Mashpee Wampanoag- 1616

Traders from Europe bring yellow fever to Wampanoag territory. The geographical area affected was all of the 69 tribes of the Wampanoag Nation from present day Provincetown, MA to Narragansett Bay; the boundary of the Wampanoag and Narragansett Nations. Fully two thirds of the entire Wampanoag Nation (estimated at 45,000) die. This also represents a loss of as many speakers of the language, the hardest hit were elders and small children; critical age groups for any language. European disease would also place in jeopardy each tribes ability to sustain a population for defense of its territory and culture.


Mayflower arrives in current day Provincetown, MA and then moves across Cape Cod Bay to Pahtuksut (current day Plimouth MA). The Pahtuksut Wampanoag do not approach the Europeans for another three months for fear of more disease being brought ashore.


Missionaries begin to arrive in Wampanoag territory. John Eliot arrives from Cambridge, England and begins to learn the language of the Wampanoag in an effort to translate religious materials into Wopanaotaok (Wampanoag language) for the conversion of Wampanoag to Christianity. This is the first Amer-Indian language to employ an alphabetic writing system in the codification of its language.


Harvard Indian College opens for the purpose of educating Indian youth. Harvard was in financial troubles during this time and felt that if they opened an Indian College they could secure more funding from those benefactors in England. If the Wampanoag population were assimilated to Christianity and moved away from traditional life, the ease with which land could be appropriated would prove profitable.

There would be no need to spend funds on more weapons and war and less chance that the fledgling Massachusetts Bay and Plimoth Bay colonies would be effected by the loss of English lives; if lost, those lives would translate to a loss of the labor pool and local businesses. Further, any chance of attracting more investors and potential settlers to the area would be dashed if war were to break out early on between the Wampanoag and settlers.

John Eliot translates the King James version of the Old Testament and reports in his diary that there are too many problems with his translations.  He had employed John Sassamon; a Wampanoag man who would become his protégé. Sassamon is killed and then his next consultant Joel Neesum, another Wampanoag man, dies.  Eliot then works with two of the Wampanoag students of the newly formed Indian College, Iacoomes and Cheehsahtyamuk, in order to translate the Holy Bible. This would accomplish two tasks at the same time; translation of the religious materials necessary for conversion to Christianity and have the added bonus of good PR for the purpose of gaining more funding from England via the Indian college.

Eliot would write that he had no hope of seeing the translation of the Bible completed in his lifetime and would instead translate some smaller religious texts and maybe some of the old testament.


Mashpee is designated as a 'Praying Town' and becomes the tribal village with the largest population of remaining Wampanoag left of the original 69 villages. Native written documents show that Wampanoag who had previously gone to Massachusett (current day Boston) to reside in a praying town complain that they are returning to Cape Cod due to illnesses in Boston.


First copy of King James version of the Holy Bible (both old and new testaments) printed in Cambridge MA in Wampanoag. This was the first entire bible put to press in the 'New World'. While Eliot had written to his benefactors in England that he had no hope of the Bible's complete translation; he writes that he finds the Wampanoag 'ingenious' learners and farms out portions of the Bible for translation amongst many Wampanoag. 

The Wampanoag would eventually go on to record, in their own language, everything from deeds to wills to contracts and letters containing the conditions under which they lived as well as personal letters. Hundreds of such documents survive today. The Wampanoag would later use these same documents to reclaim their language. During this same time period the establishments of 'praying towns' was at its height. Natick was established as a praying town with a land donation from John Speen, a Nipmuc man, to John Eliot. The formation of 'Grammar schools' were established where children and adults would go after religious instruction in order to learn English grammar. Mashpees were also living in some praying towns off Cape as can be seen by reading the sample conversations contained within these grammars. The establishment of praying towns offered protection to Wampanoag in that the English took the position that if an Indian were a convert to Christianity s/he was saved, no longer heathen, now had a soul, and hence not a threat.


King Philip's War begins. While citizens of tribes from the Cape would fight in this war, the Mashpee Wampanoag, as well as the other tribes on Cape Cod and the islands of Martha's Vineyard 5and Nantucket did not formally send men into this war. The populations of these tribes had still not been able to fully recover from the diseases of


The construction of the Mashpee Wampanoag Meeting House is completed and erected at Bryant's Neck on Santuit Pond. The meetinghouse is built for the purpose of 'The propagation of the gospel to the Indians' and funded by The Williams Fund of Harvard College for the same purpose. The meetinghouse was granted $500 per year for the 'propagation of the gospel to the Indians'. The Mashpee Baptist Church still receives these funds annually to this day. The Meetinghouse is later moved from Bryant's Neck to its current day home in Mashpee

Plymouth Court (Plimoth Bay Colony) confirms title of Mashpee to the Mashpees (aka Southsea Indians; a term applied to the tribe by Whites).

The territory then comprising all of present day Mashpee as well as portions of Sandwich, all of present day village of Santuit, all of the present day village of Waquoit, as well as a portion of present day East Falmouth up to current day Child's River.

Plymouth Court (Plimouth Bay Colony) confirms the right of Mashpees to maintain an entailment on all the lands of Mashpee. The entailment restricts the sale or lease or transfer of any land or resource without the consent of the entire tribe.


The State of Massachusetts passes an act that orders all remnants of historical tribes within the state to move to one of the four communities that still have functioning Indian governments; the communities of Mashpee, Aquinnah, Herring Pond, or Grafton; although Grafton was actually Nipmuc Nation.

The Mashpee Wampanoag send a petition for help to the Commissioners of Boston requesting assistance with a myriad of grievances; being beaten by English when fishing or hunting their own Wampanoag territory,having the White neighbors lease out their lands without their permission, the English selling Wampanoag land to one another without the consent of the tribe, of 'These English neighbors of ours being in our trees, wood, and marsh without our consent'.This document goes on to remind the Commissioners that Mashpee had been legally set aside for Wampanoag only as long as Wampanoag Indians lived. The petition further states: 'Truly we think it is this way; that soon we poor Indians here in this Indian place of Mashpee soon shall have no place to live together with these poor children of ours'. The problems with the document were that it was written in Wôpanâôt8âôk and the Commissioners most assuredly did not speak the language. Even if there was a translator the Mashpees were asking the very same group of English oppressors to protect them from that oppression.


The State of MA appoints two White overseers to conduct all business pertaining to the Mashpee Wampanoag on behalf of the tribe. The tribe is stripped of the right to negotiate the lease of any of its' lands or have control over any of the natural resources thereon.


Copyright 2008 Jessie Little Doe Baird
Wopanaak Linguistic Consulting
ot for publication or citation
Working draft for an exhibit at the National Museuom of the
American Indian Washington DC